Joanna Gerber, environmental science teacher at the Friends School of Atlanta, works with second graders in the school’s milkweed garden that attracts monarch butterflies. The school was recently designated a waystation on the butterflies’ migratory route.

Making the Grade: Local school builds program to preserve butterflies

Monarch butterflies are not just beautiful, colorful creatures. It turns out, they make excellent subjects for elementary school study. At the Friends School of Atlanta, students in second and fifth grades have taken their research on monarchs beyond just learning about their life cycles.

The Decatur school recently earned the distinction of being named an official Monarch Waystation, a safe haven, as it were, for the butterflies to stop and refuel on their annual journey south to Mexico. Only a handful of other area schools have the designation. Friends has also been registered as part of the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail, a network of public and private gardens that provide nourishment for the monarchs.

Attracting the flighty creatures to the Decatur campus has been a four-year process. It began when teachers and students planted milkweed, the butterflies’ main food source. But it took more than year to see results, said elementary science teacher Joanna Gerber.

“That first year, nothing happened until the milkweed grew,” she said. “But the next year, the adult monarchs came, and the kids got to hold and study them. A lot of eggs were laid, and we brought them from our garden into the classroom. We then had caterpillars and watched the entire cycle. It was a beautiful experience that got the whole school pretty excited.”

This year, the students raised 40 monarchs that were tagged and released. Upon arriving at their winter home at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, the millions of butterflies are carefully counted. Their numbers offer researchers indications of climatic and geographic changes.

“That was how I got involved,” said Gerber. “The year we started, they counted the lowest number of monarchs – just 34 million. A lot of people began working to save them. Now our vision is to be involved with organizations around the country and internationally that have partnered with Monarch Watch, a group started by scientists to track them.”

At Friends, the butterflies quickly flitted across the curriculum.

“Joanna and her colleague, Dennis Bauer, promoted the importance of monarch butterfly preservation and how this program could be integrated so teachers of language arts, social studies, art and music could connect with the study in their own classrooms,” said Head of School Waman French.

The most powerful impact of the project has been its ability to connect students to the rest of the world, said Gerber. “They see the process and connect that we’re part of the natural world and a global organization. They also realize that they’re seeing a living thing in front of them; it’s not a video on TV.”

The program also supports the values of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, a religious sect that founded the school in 1991. It is one of just 83 Friends schools around the country that are opened to all faiths.

“The monarch program spoke to the Quaker value of being good stewards of the Earth and the animal kingdom,” said French. “Science learning at Friends is an active process guided by students’ natural curiosity about the world and the values Friends places on that stewardship. It ties into the values we keep in the forefront of our thinking: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship.”

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